Putting Lived Experience First: Decentering Power in Knowledge Creation

Julia Fursova is a former Postdoctoral Fellow at Making the Shift 

“We need to enhance our understanding of what works, why it works, for whom, and in what contexts. To do this, we will collaborate with community partners, all levels of government and, most importantly, people who have firsthand experience of youth homelessness.” 

Stephen Gaetz • Scientific Director, Making the Shift


At Making the Shift, we strongly believe in the principle of co-creation and taking a human-centred approach to programs, policies, services, and research. Creating spaces and opportunities for advancing the participation of people with lived experience in knowledge creation, including research and evaluation, is an important aspect of systems change and our efforts to ultimately prevent and end youth homelessness.

Making the Shift is a body of work, co-led by A Way Home and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, that advances knowledge creation and mobilization to prevent youth homelessness. MtS currently funds fourteen research projects across five intersecting research themes and twelve demonstration projects aimed at developing and testing programs that prevent and facilitate sustainable exits from homelessness.

This blog post is intended for researchers and evaluators involved in knowledge production and mobilization in the homelessness sector. I talk about the imperative of de-centering power in knowledge creation to meaningfully include voices of people with lived experience and share some examples of work currently led by MtS network members and researchers.

Participation of People with Lived Experiences in Knowledge Creation: why is this important?

We live in unprecedented times. On one hand, humanity boasts of extreme technological advances and progress; on another, we grapple with fundamental social problems, such as poverty, homelessness, hunger, ecological devastation, racism, and other forms of oppression. In this increasingly unequal world that is full of potential to create and innovate, how we generate knowledge about our actions and their impact matters.

Research and evaluation are sites of knowledge production and present an important part of institutional memories and narratives. In other words, they are part of the story that is told about “us,” whether us is a sector, an organization, or a specific program or service. Who is included in the “we” of this story is an important consideration in any knowledge creation process.

Not so long ago, the “we” in knowledge creation was limited to the perspectives of groups holding institutional power, which included mostly the voices of those whose social locations denoted whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and privilege. The knowledge created often excluded the perspectives of those located on the margins of power – non-white, female or non-binary, low-income, refugee, and Indigenous voices. What’s more, patriarchal and colonial systems of knowledge production have trained even those of us whose positionalities are not white and middle class to internalize ways of knowledge creation that are aligned with patriarchal and colonial systems.

In the words of Audre Lorde, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.” To me, these words speak most poignantly to the imperative to change modes and systems of knowledge creation if we want the knowledge produced to serve the advancement of equity and justice. In the context of social innovation and systems change work that positions itself as an agent of just and equitable change, it is crucial that the perspectives and voices of people with lived experience of oppression are meaningfully included in knowledge creation. For example, little is known about the extent and experiences of being banned for people who are homeless, while homelessness has been extensively criminalized through laws that ban trespassing, loitering, and sleeping in public spaces. The implications of such blind spots for homelessness research are described in this blog by Emma Wolley. Otherwise, we risk taking tokenistic action without addressing these issues at their roots.

How do we de-centre power in knowledge creation?   

Given the imperative to de-center power, how can researchers more equitably share their institutional power in knowledge creation, making sure that our approaches to setting research agendas are informed by intersectional perspectives of people with lived experience of oppression and marginalization?

For me, the answer is to use participatory research methodologies that meaningfully include people with lived experience of oppression, the voices that had been systemically marginalized in knowledge creation. Participatory research and evaluation is about enabling participation of people with lived experiences as co-leaders in shaping knowledge creation and mobilization activities, starting from designing research and/or evaluation questions to analysing results and mobilizing findings. It is a way to enable knowledge co-creation that advances equity and justice and embeds holistic accountability, where the notion of accountability is not narrowly defined by the funder but extends to the communities served, peers in the sector, and values the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Most importantly, participatory ways of working are not simply a set of specific methods of data collection but ways of relating to each other that afford more equitable distribution of decision-making power and include the sharing of resources and expertise.

Participatory approaches to research involve people impacted by an issue researched, not simply as ‘research subjects’ but research collaborators, creating spaces and opportunities to co-create the research agenda, identify research questions, participate in decision-making concerning methods of data collection, interpret the findings, and determine options for knowledge mobilization.

Advancing participation of People with Lived Experience in MtS work 

Among eight research projects funded by MtS in 2019, six involve youth with lived experience co-creating and co-implementing the research. Their participation is supported in various ways, such as inviting youth to join the Research Advisory Committee or creating Youth with Lived Experience advisory committees, hiring youth with lived experience as research assistants and providing them with necessary training. The word cloud below demonstrates how often our projects reference youth under the theme of partnerships and collaboration.

In addition to our funded research projects, MtS has helped initiate the formation of the Scholars with Lived Experience Network or LivEX. LivEX is a peer-led community of people with lived experience of homelessness who can advise researchers and service-delivery personnel working to prevent and end youth homelessness. The vision for the LivEx is to be a national community and a nurturing space for scholars in any stage of their career to expand their professional network, develop research and leadership capacity, and provide peer mentoring. Members of LivEx serve on the MtS Advisory boards and are included as part of the research proposal review committee. Their leadership and capacity are supported by MtS through employment, bursaries, and professional development opportunities. Most recently, MtS hosted a workshop on participatory evaluation for LivEx members and guests to enhance capacity of its members to integrate participatory evaluation in the projects and initiatives LivEx members are a part of and to further advance the voices of lived experiences in their work.

Knowledge creation is a puzzle of interlinked pieces, and each piece is connected to an aspect of power – be it setting up a research agenda, selecting research questions, or deciding on the ways to disseminate findings. This process is often flawed with uncertainty and uneven distribution of capacities and resources, which present a barrier to collaboration and participatory ways of working. Yet for creating knowledge that is capable of reshaping the world as more just and equitable, it is important to reshape the very process of “knowledge production” as co-creation. There is an opportunity in each and every step of this process to meaningfully include voices of people with lived experience.

When researchers set the agenda for research or evaluation, they decide what is worth knowing. Historically, what is known or not known about experiences of marginalization or oppression was informed by the perspectives of those in privilege and power. Unless the research is informed by diverse perspectives, including those with lived experiences of an issue at hand, we won’t know what we don’t know.